The Tennessee Court of Appeals at Jackson held a litigant is entitled to the award of attorney fees and costs under the Tennessee Public Records Act (TPRA) if the defendant willfully refused to disclose the requested records. The Court, however, held the Plaintiff may not recover attorney fees when acting pro se.
The Plaintiff in his action, attorney Andrew C. Clarke, sought records from The City of Memphis on February 15, 2013, concerning the Police Oversight Committee. He made two inquiries about his TPRA request when he received no response. On March 8, The City responded it needed more time for processing Clarke’s request, and it did likewise on March 22. Finally, because the records were subject to litigation he was involved in, it advised him to seek them through civil discovery. Clarke filed an amended petition, and The Court found The City wrongfully failed to disclose the records. It also awarded Clarke $3,500 in attorney fees; Clarke appealed the award.
In applying whether an award of attorney fees should be given under the TPRA, the appellate court said it must apply the “willfulness standard”, which should focus on whether there is an absence of good faith with respect to the legal position a municipality relies on in support of its refusal of records”.
Tennessee precedent “indicates that an award of attorneys’ fees will be warranted under the TPRA when a municipality denies a records request by invoking a legal argument that has no good faith basis in light of existing law”. The Court found The City failed to provide a specific legal reason for denial of the requested records. Instead, it “relied upon a hypothesized general barrier to access”. Thus, an award of attorney fees was proper due to the willfulness of the denial.
Clarke sought to recover a total of $11,685 in attorneys’ fees. The request included $9,345 for services he performed and $2,340 for work performed by his attorney.
The Court made a distinction between those requests. “His rights to public records under the TPRA are as a citizen; his status as an attorney does not automatically afford him rights superior to that of any other citizen under The Act”. Attorney fees can be recovered only as a “cost involved in obtaining the record”.
As such, Clarke could not recover attorney fees for work he performed. The Court reduced the award to $2,340. See: Clarke v. City of Memphis,_S.W.3d_ (Tenn. Ct. App 2015) Case W2014-00602.
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Related legal case
Clarke v. City of Memphis
|_S.W.3d_ (Tenn. Ct. App 2015) Case W2014-00602.
|Court of Appeals